Indonesia: Why Wahid Wonít Visit Australia Soon


Gerry van Klinken

Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid has again postponed his planned visit to Australia. It may now be in July. Even so, parliament urged him to hold off until Australia 'changes its attitude'. Already at their worst after Australia led InterFET troops into Dili last September, Australia-Indonesia relations were not helped by revelations in May that Australian aircraft had been gathering electronic intelligence from just beyond Indonesia's borders during the East Timor operation.

A newly democratic government in Jakarta should have provided the opportunity for a whole fresh start in relations between the two neighbours. But the view held by several Indonesian intellectuals - that the East Timor invasion was Suharto's mistake under Cold War conditions - did not win the day in Jakarta. So what is going wrong?

Australian commentators usually do not recognise that foreign policy is far less of a priority for Indonesia's new leaders than it does for Australia. Wahid's frequent trips overseas are not followed with great interest in the Indonesian press. Perhaps even the president himself thinks of them much the way Sukarno used to do - as a way of removing himself from controversy at home while his opponents get bloodied in battle.

Indonesia has always been a world unto itself. But the sense of anxiety gripping the elite, that something terrible might happen unexpectedly, seems stronger now than it has been since the mid-1960s. Nor did the June 1999 election do much to resolve those fears.

This is not a moment of outward-looking self-confidence for the Indonesian elite. It is a moment of domestic preoccupation verging on xenophobia. Gus Dur's honeymoon is over and rivals are looking for a chance to strike. The IMF is increasingly frustrated with the lack of energy for economic policy amid the energy-sapping jostling of the elite.

In such an atmosphere, old taboos, far from fading from view, keep on working their dark spell. One of those taboos is East Timor. United in a serious state of denial on what happened there last year, the elite have hardly mentioned the subject in public since November.

It is not the only taboo. The appalling anti-communist massacres that accompanied the beginning of the Suharto era in 1965/66 are also unmentionable. When Abdurrahman Wahid, who is nearly the only liberal figure in the government, suggested the ban on communism should be lifted, one time anti-Suharto demonstrator and now parliamentary speaker Amien Rais, to loud approval, said that Wahid should have his 'ears twisted'. If Wahid was to reach out to Australia prematurely, he could get more than his ears twisted.

WATCHPOINT: Will Gus Dur and Dr Mahathir find common cause in refusing to visit Australia?


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